Finding Freedom Through Financial Literacy


For many women, money is not a choice topic of conversation. Whether this is due to the remnants of society’s shift from a woman’s dependency on her spouse or just the effect of today’s uncertain economic climate, it cannot be denied women are undeserved in terms of financial planning.

“If you think about it until our generation, most women haven’t felt empowered by money,” says Helen Bui, Founder of Skylet Campus.

“Women think about money as survival, whereas men think about money in terms of their future and empowerment. Women typically spend it all when they have it because they think it’s just enough to get by, they don’t think about money enabling their future.”

And the recent election didn’t help.

“There are all these doubts now about student loan debt and inequality among Millennial women,” adds Bui. “While things are happening and we may feel powerless, we are powerful in different ways. We might not have a woman president in January, but we can change our lives with our wallets.”

According to Bui, whose parents immigrated to the US from Vietnam when she was an infant, American women are desperately in need of financial training. Bui reports that only 18 percent of millennial women demonstrate strong financial literacy, which translates to about 8 million in 38 million young adult women, and this does not bode well when it comes to future independence.

“We are a reactive culture. People are inherently bad planners; they don’t plan. To change any kind of idea around financial education, we realized we had to do something different than others do.”

To address this issue, Bui launched Stash-it, an app designed to help people develop solvent financial habits, in October 2015. After introducing her platform to the Apple App Store she quickly realized there was white space when it came to millennial women, who were lagging behind their male counterparts in terms of fiscal responsibility. She evolved her concept and in September 2016, introduced Skylet Campus, a new Gen Y-targeted app meant to provide community support, discussion, Q&As, educational videos, product reviews, money hacks, and tools to help money management become second nature to women.

“We realized that our mission is more needed than ever,” says Bui, adding that Skylet Campus app, which is $50 a year or $5 a month, gains about 1,000 new users on a monthly basis. “The power of women isn’t just the money they spend; we are starting to lead companies now. I want to see more female business leaders. I want to encourage women through this world of doubt they are feeling.”

Bui is currently running an “equality initiative,” offering free access to the app to all new members till January 1, 2017. In addition, Skylet Campus will also donate a free membership to young women in undeserved areas for every new member who joins by the end of the year.

“Because financial habits are harder to break when you are older, we want to start at college age,” says Bui, a former executive at News Corp. “We quickly found that money wasn’t being discussed anywhere, particularly [when it came to] these young women. We also understood there is a huge disconnect between social class around money. We talk about money differently with people who have it vs. people who don’t. We need to break down those boundaries.”
Not only are there few options for women, but the financial syllabuses that do exist, Bui says, are outdated, unapproachable and usually not digital or mobile in nature.

For Bui, it was imperative that the education she offered be relatable and applicable. She helps her members learn the ins and outs of modern financial platforms like Venmo, and helps them understand how to fill out tax documents. “If you look online, it’s a fire hose of information,” she says. “If you search something you may end up on a mommy blog somewhere, reading content that’s not really written for you.”

According to Bui, the element of trust is another huge factor when it comes to financial literacy.

“We can’t rely on banks because they actually prefer that we know less and colleges don’t teach life skills anymore,” she says. “[Financial education is] left with parents and not many know how to talk to their kids about it.”

Following in her own footsteps, Bui is completely self-funded. She has three employees and a “ton of interns and ambassadors.”

“The biggest investment I made is the investment I made myself,” says Bui, who is focusing on additional partnerships and sponsorships as well as releasing new tools like money-inspired emojis in the next year. “I put a bet on myself more than stocks, a mutual fund, or a financial adviser, and I’m proud of that because that’s what I’m telling other people to do as well.”

7min read

The Middle East And North Africa Are Brimming With Untapped Female Potential

Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.

A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.

The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.

In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.

Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization ( publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")

The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."

This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.

Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.

She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."

Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.

"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei

While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.

Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.

The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."

This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.

Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.